Friday, April 29, 2011

The best islands in Cambodia

Travelfish, Apr 29, 2011

Sihanoukville is Cambodia's premier beach destination, popular with locals, backpackers and expats alike. But despite massive amounts of recent development, the town can still be disappointing for those who come expecting a Thailand-like beach experience.

Sihanoukville's beaches just aren't very impressive, and the child beggars and crusty sexpats only add to the feeling of seediness that the place exudes. Luckily, though, Sihanoukville proper can just be a pit stop on a trip to a true beach paradise.

In recent times the islands off the coast of Cambodia have become a tourist destination in their own right with new accommodation being built on nearly all of them. Despite this, though, they are still marvelously untouched and possess a serenity not easily found elsewhere.

Koh Rong Saloem

If you've been to one of the islands off Sihanoukville before this year, Koh Rong Saloem was probably it. Lazy Beach has been the accommodation of record for the Sihanoukville islands for more than six years now, and the island is still just as lovely and lazy as ever. Every night Lazy Beach guests relax with a cocktail on the porch to enjoy stunning fuchsia sunsets. The most recent development on Koh Rong Saloem has been the opening of the Freedom Beach Bungalows on the other side of the island in Saracen Bay, where one should be able to see an equally beautiful sunrise.

The island is quite large, and covered with interesting opportunities for visitors, including coral reefs that can be visited by even the most novice snorkellers and diving with a new diving outfit that has recently set up shop. Run by James Mostert, who was previously a dive instructor for Marine Conservation Cambodia on the island, Angkor Dive Cambodia (T: (016) 337 488) is a conservation-focused dive shop that offers fun dives and PADI courses. Although Koh Rong Saloem is the most well-known of the Sihanoukville islands, it's still an excellent choice for a relaxed weekend.

Koh Rong

Koh Rong is the star of the islands off Sihanoukville. With white sand beaches and turquoise waters, Koh Rong is a dreamy tropical paradise and one of the loveliest islands in the Gulf of Thailand. Apart from sunning on the miles of white sand, there's also diving, snorkelling and trekking paths for visitors.

Although Koh Rong has long had bungalows managed by a diving shop in town, at the end of 2010 and early 2011 the number of bungalows on the island multiplied, and now eight places offer accommodation on the island. The new bungalows have definitely put Koh Rong on the map — the name is on the lips of every backpacker in town and two daily boats chug over to the opposite side of the 78 kilometre-square island.

Despite this, and the major development project that is said to be in the works, Koh Rong is still remarkably pristine and undeveloped — there are no roads, all transport is by boat and the only electricity is from generators. That's certain to change, so try to visit Koh Rong before the hordes arrive.

Koh Ta Kiev

Koh Ta Kiev is the widely-ignored little brother of the island group. Koh Ta Kiev Resort has been in operation for a few years but many travellers have passed it by, perhaps due to the "resort" moniker (which for a collection of simple but sturdy bungalows is soundly undeserved). Recently new accommodation has taken up residence where Jonty's Jungle Camp used to be. Ten103 Treehouse Bay is nestled deep in the jungle and offers delicious daily specials by professional chefs.

Koh Ta Kiev itself is beautiful, and is one of the closest to Sihanoukville's mainland. It takes less than an hour to get to one of the three yellow sand beaches surrounded by pine trees &8212; from there, trek into the jungle where more than 100 species of birds make their home as well as some other interesting types of wildlife such as the carnivorous pitcher plant. Snorkellers will also get their fill, and can see giant mussels that aren't found at all of the other islands.

Koh Russei

Koh Russei is still living under the shadow of its former self, as a package tour and backpacker hangout with dirty beaches. But these days, the island has renewed itself after a major bulldozing by the Cambodian government eliminated all but one set of bungalows and a small cafe.

At less than an hour from shore, Koh Russei, or Bamboo Island as it's known, is the best island to visit if you're pressed for time. The island is still popular with backpackers, but local expats and other visitors also find pleasure in the golden beaches and island barbecues. It's worthwhile to stay overnight at long-running Koh Ru, which is on a quiet beach on the part of the island never visited by the tour boats. It offers simple beach bungalows and dormitory beds year-round.

Koh Thmei

The most pristine of all of the islands, Koh Thmei is part of the Ream National Park and doesn't even have an entire village to call its own. Last December the Cambodian government granted a German couple the right to build an eco-friendly lodge there, complete with solar panels and natural water filtration system.

Koh Thmei is an exciting destination for nature lovers and wildlife spotters. More than 150 species of birds call it home and it's possible to see dolphins swimming off shore.

The island is almost completely untouched — the only thing there apart from the Koh Thmei Resort bungalows is a shrimp fishery — and much of it is so thickly forested that it's only accessible by boat, making it the perfect island for a secluded weekend getaway.